Monday, July 4, 2011

The Real Lessons of the Declaration

I'm taking some liberties with my post today, as I really didn't find much about the Declaration of Independence in today's Times. Interesting, too, that I couldn't find a version of the Declaration in the online edition of the paper either. Usually, I read the Declaration aloud from the back page of the paper, but I have no paper copy these days, just the online edition and my iPad app.

As a result I went online and read the text of the original document and then ran into this piece from the Boston Herald by Jennifer Braceras. Calling her article "The Lasting Lessons of Independence," she begins by lamenting how few of us remember the reasons for celebrating the 4th and then goes on to enumerate its universal truths: "That all people are created equal; that our basic human rights derive from God, not government; that government exists for the purpose of protecting our God-given rights; and that government is the instrument of the people — not the other way around."

All good, as far as it goes, but I am also struck by her omissions. Jefferson also says this: "That whenever any Form of Government" fails to secure these rights, "it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." Of course, you don't resort to such drastic action without first exhausting all possible alternatives, but when everything else has been tried with no success and fundamental rights are still withheld from the people, then it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government. This is radical stuff and it is one of the main reasons why, as Braceras herself indicates, that the Declaration and the Constitution should never be confused.

But the implication of this radical notion, perhaps now more than ever, is also strikingly relevant. If the standard for just governments is that the safety and happiness of all the people must be effected and that some reasonable level of equality must be maintained, then it is arguable that our current government is falling woefully short. It would be silly, at least at this point in time, to use the Declaration to advocate an overthrow of our current government, but we have reached a point where the degree of inequality is so outrageous, the extent of public safety so uneven, and the level of general happiness so diminished as to put our leaders on notice that unless significant change comes soon in the direction of greater equality, safety, and happiness for all, then a radical alteration of the current governing system must be regarded as a distinct possibility.

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